Chandler Jones’ player of the year campaign was aided by misfortune.
Oakley High School senior running back/linebacker Austin Bedke missed three-plus games because of an injury in the season-opener. An injury knocked sophomore RB/LB Josh Nyman out for two games. Hornets starting quarterback Tate Cranney missed the second half of the season after suffering a leg injury.
That last blow was bittersweet to Jones, who mainly lined up at wide receiver and defensive back. The sophomore replaced Cranney at quarterback, and he thrived. The Hornets lost in the 1A Division I state semifinals, but without Jones’ all-around success and seamless performance at quarterback, their season likely would have ended much earlier.
“We all felt bad for Tate. Tate and Chandler were really getting on the same page in their quarterback-wide receiver relationship,” Oakley head coach Kade Craner said. “But at the same time, you have to have plan B ready to go, and plan B was a pretty good option.”
Jones was a quarterback throughout middle school and junior high, and he was Oakley’s JV signal caller as a freshman. Cranney was the starting varsity quarterback as a sophomore in 2016, so Jones was given the backup role this past season, in addition to starting spots at receiver and cornerback.
Jones embraced his roles and was one of Cranney’s favorite targets — he caught 36 passes for 796 yards and 11 touchdowns in five games. He certainly didn’t want Cranney to get hurt. But there’s a reason Jones played quarterback every season of his football career before 2017.
“I love playing quarterback, and I think I’d rather do that. When (Cranney) went down, I can’t say I was too upset,” he said. “If I had been catching passes, I’d have been happy. I love any spot on the field, really. It doesn’t matter. But playing quarterback the last few games, that was fun. I got to show people what I could do.”
Jones played five games at quarterback. He completed 40-of-86 passes for 682 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions, and he rushed for 502 yards and eight TDs on 46 carries (10.9 yards be rush). And none of those five games were easy.
His first start at QB came at home against Valley on Oct. 20. The Vikings were ranked No. 4 in the media poll and had senior quarterback Jason Hardy, who was later named the Snake River Conference offensive player of the year.
Jones was tasked with replacing an excellent quarterback, dueling with another and covering one of the conference’s best receivers. Valley senior Victor Lopez, returning from injury, lined up across from Jones the entire game.
Lopez broke free for 200-plus yards, but Jones played well on offense. He ran effectively and threw for two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:20 left in the game.
“It was an easy transition,” Jones said. “There are things with a lot more pressure than playing football.”
The next week, Jones led the Hornets to a win over rival Raft River, and he helped them reach the state semifinals after a blowout win over Lapwai.
The semifinal game, against Prairie, was both magical and disastrous for Jones.
He accounted for four of Oakley’s five touchdowns, one of which was set up by a Jones 55-yard punt return. But in the fourth quarter, Jones threw an interception that led to Prairie’s game-tying touchdown, and he lost a fumble that resulted in the eventual game-winning score.
“That still haunts me to this day,” he said.
Jones now knows how Craner and Cranney felt in 2016, when Oakley lost to Raft River in the state title game. No number of big plays and gaudy statistics could help Jones cope with the semifinal loss.
But he understands the breadth of his accomplishments. Few sophomores play as well as Jones did on both sides of the ball this past season (he had 64 tackles and seven interceptions on defense). Even fewer players move from receiver and perform nearly as well as the successful quarterback they replaced.
“I never thought we were in trouble,” Cranney said. “I knew there might be some learning curves, but he took to it really well and probably played the best football of anybody in our conference.”